Monday, May 31, 2010

A Dutch Uncle Talks to A Techical Pain in the Patootie

Teams have members with different levels of talent. Some talents are technical, some are social. Getting other members to speak up, protecting opinions so they can get a full consideration, and praising others are all helpful social behaviors. Organizing data, proposing alternatives, seeing patterns, doing calculations are all technical skills. Both sets of skills help teams achieve their goals.

There are times when a team has a member whose technical skills are remarkably strong. He or she is head and shoulders above the others on the team from an intellectual standpoint. If that person has good social skills, he integrates his contribution smoothly into the team and it all becomes a joint effort. Unfortunately, some people with unusual technical talents provide them in a way that makes others pay a price for getting them. There is a good chance you have met someone like this in your career. He/she is like medicine with a bitter taste. You know you need it, but you don't like taking it.

Coworkers and leaders working with this type of technical Grinch often find it difficult to put their feelings into words or find the courage to confront the individual. If your team has a need to address this problem, the letter that follows may help you do it. It is a letter from the person's "Dutch Uncle" -- that relative who has no problem telling someone the simple truth no matter how difficult. We all need a Dutch Uncle in our lives. Now you can use this one. Use the letter to have a face-to-face discussion with the 'errant nephew' (preferred approach) or slip it anonymously into the interoffice mail (chicken approach).

If you can improve the letter, add your comments to the blog. If you use the letter, come back and comment on how it worked for you.

A Letter from Your Uncle

Dear _________:

Your coworkers have asked me to pen this letter to you. They are concerned about your career and future success.

First, I would like to make it abundantly clear that your technical expertise is of a high caliber. Everyone recognizes that the work you do, from a technical standpoint, is exceptional. Your extensive knowledge of your field and your analytical abilities are remarkable. The fact that you can achieve insights and accomplish things that baffle others is very evident. Your expertise is very valuable to your organization. The fact that you are intelligent and talented is not in question.

Second, your friends tell me that is not enough. Doing the technical part of your job is necessary, but not sufficient. It is not the whole job. You must also work effectively with others at all levels.

It seems you have been using your technical skills as a justification to run roughshod over the feelings of others. Just because you are smarter does not mean you are better than others. Everyone has a right to respect in the workplace and your coworkers feel you are not providing that to them. Actions like putting down their ideas and suggestions, rubbing in their mistakes, telling them that what they say is “dumb” or “stupid” or just giving them ‘that look’ communicate a smug sense of superiority that others find irritating. For someone with your technical talents, your interpersonal skills do not reach the same level. People feel you are using your technical ability to hold them hostage in an unpleasant relationship. You are making them pay a price interpersonally and emotionally to get the technical help you can provide. If they did to you what you do to them, you wouldn’t like it either. Brains are not an entitlement for abusive behavior.

Before you dismiss this observation, they want you to know that it could cost you your job. While it may not be a statistic you are familiar with, they know that more people are pushed out of companies because they cannot work with coworkers than because of technical incompetence. Just being right is not enough. You also need to “play well with others.” Your friends are guardedly optimistic that you can turn your talents to the area of interpersonal relations and become a productive team player instead of a know-it-all jerk. They really don’t want to say this to your face because of the sarcastic retort they expect. You aren’t the only person in history to have this pattern of behavior, but only you can make your own personal choice to be both a technical guru and a nice person. The two are not mutually exclusive. Give it some thought, then make sure the people you work with ‘have a nice day.’ If you are as talented as you think you are, this should be a challenge you can master.


Your Uncle

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Teams and Skill-based Pay (SBP)

Teams are made up of individuals who provide some degree of mutual support in the achievement of a set of shared goals. In many cases, the work functions performed within the team are broken down and assigned to individual members. This leads to a specialization of work within the team. This can be efficient in some respects, but counterproductive in others.

If the nature of the work done by individual members is not highly specialized, it is possible to have multiple members learn to do the same tasks. In other words, they learn each other's jobs. This is most common in production environments or in administrative departments of office environments. It is less practical in teams of college-trained professionals where an in-depth technical background may be required (e.g., a team of various engineers will not train electrical engineers to be mechanical engineers).

To the extent that team members can learn each other's jobs and rotate through the different positions within the team, the individual members gain a better appreciation of what is required of fellow team members. It also helps members understand what is going on before and after their part of the operation and the consequences of poor performance on others. Cross-trained team members are also better equipped to cover for absences and vacations within the team.

By paying team members for learning the various tasks performed throughout the team unit, you create a skill-based pay framework. As members learn and apply new skills on a consistent basis, they qualify for pay increases. There are practical limits to how many diverse skills a single member can learn and remain proficient on, so paying for skills beyond a certain point is not cost effective. Generally speaking, the work performed before and after a team member's position would be the primary areas for him to learn.

A rigorous program of training and evaluating members is required for a skill-based pay program to work. It is important to note that this is not pay for education -- learning alone is not sufficient -- the skills must be used proficiently on an on-going basis. This is supported by a job rotation program within the team. Another caveat is that skills cannot be learned and paid for on a 'progress at will' basis. Minimum time limits for learning and practicing a skill are required to prevent team members from simply chasing after pay raises without regard to proficiency. Time limits also make administration more manageable and ensure fairness in access to learning instead of having it be contingent on opportunity. Don't rush the system because unanticipated outside forces will intervene to slow progress from what would be assumed as normal.

For teams where cross-training and job rotation are not practical, skill-based pay may be used to give team members an incentive to gain more in-depth knowledge. This is particularly true in production operations for maintenance technicians. The journey from apprentice to journeyperson represents this type of progression. By linking pay to successful apprenticeship completion (in stages), you can create a skill-based pay program. A similiar approach might be applied to some professional jobs (e.g., progression from Enginer I, to Engr. II, to Sr. Engr.). In fact, "career ladders" represent a form of professional level SBP.

The two best environments for the use of skill-based pay are in new organization startups and in organizations undergoing significant change in job responsibilities. In both cases, intensive learning by broadening and deepening skills is part of the change. By tying learning to pay through SBP, employees have an incentive to participate actively in the change. New plants that overlook skill-based pay miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a strongly skilled workforce that not only gains from excellent training, but also buys into a very effective pay system. Properly designed, SBP systems will generally gather fewer complaints about fairness and administration than other "time in grade" or "supervisor rating" approaches.

For more information on skill based pay, visit and click on the books link and then select "Skill-Based Pay: Design and Implementation."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Leader Values - Part 2

What values would be held by successful leaders in self-directed work systems? While there is no definitive research on this subject, some of the values might include:

  • Expectation of excellence: commitment to getting the best results using the best means; pushing back excuses while enabling people to overcome legitimate obstacles; not accepting compromises in core values.
  • Respect for the dignity of people as human beings: each person is respected because he or she is human; individuals are not accorded respect solely on the basis of their positions or accomplishments; respect for the community and environment are extensions of this value.
  • Consideration of the effect of one's actions on others: the old "golden rule" with a deeper perspective; personal self-interest is not ignored, but is moderated for the benefit of the greater good.
  • Seeing human resources as an asset, not a cost: investing in training and education of the entire workforce so they can contribute at their best.
  • Inclusiveness: desire to include rather than exclude people in information sharing and decision making.
  • Openness and honesty: willingness to provide the information people need without filtering it or hiding it when it is unpleasant; sharing good news quickly.
  • Appreciation for the contributions of others: deriving personal pleasure from seeing the capabilities of others grow and recognizing their achievements; recognition that other persons can make important contributions to the organization within the range of their abilities and perspective; this is not unbridled optimism that everyone can be president, but that each person has the potential to offer something of value.
  • Trust that people will do the right thing: internal confidence that including people in decision making is not an inherently risky business when those people are properly trained and informed; the absence of unwarranted suspicion.

People with these values are at peace with themselves. They have an inner harmony that serves as a base from which they can securely interact with others. They are not cupcakes or pushovers. They are not perfect. They do have a deep self-assurance in their own values and are tenacious in their pursuit of them.

The leaders of one self-directed organization found their three page charter to be too lengthy for everyday use. They reflected on its intent and distilled it to six core values.

  • Achievement: We will be the best, low-cost producer by setting and achieving progressive operating and social goals.
  • Improvement: We will always do better by finding and using better ways.
  • Ownership: We will have pride in what we do -- seeing it as a reflection of ourselves.
  • Involvement: We will seek out and use the talents of others to maximize our collective excellence.
  • Respect: We will positively respect, support and care about each other and our company.
  • Communications: We will honestly share information with sensitivity for each others' needs, and use data for our decisions.

Generating a list likethis is a team building exercise of the first order. It forces a diverse group of leaders to pool their visions for the future and consense around a concise statement of the culture they wish to create. This list contains the things they value as a group. The work of creating the list is as important as the list itself.

A lack of values congruent with a self-directed environment is probably the most accurate predictor of leader failure in such an environment. Leaders' values must be positive and consistent. When inappropriate behavior has its roots in values, rather than beliefs, it may be easier for all concerned to move the leader to another environment rather than try to attempt a change in the person. Everyone can be successful somewhere. Self-directed organizations are not the best places for everyone.

What are your values as they appear in the workplace? (Consider this question for at least several days.) Please return here and post your personal values, and/or those officially subscribed to by your organization.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Leader Values - Part 1

Values are at the core of our being. They underlie why we do what we do. We must select leaders and team members with the right values for teams to succeed. We cannot expect to hire people with inappropriate values and then expect them to change. The effort is too great and the outcome too uncertain to merit the attempt. When it comes to values it may or may not be true that, "What you see is what you get!" Over time, individuals' values show through in their actions. However, if we do not know the person well (e.g., a new hire), the person can state a set of values that is what we want to hear without it being consistent with his/her practiced ones. We have little way of knowing a person's real values until we observe his/her behaviors over an extended period of time.

If people were onions, as we peeled away our layers, we would find from the outside to the inside:

1. Behaviors (Outermost - observable)
2. Feelings
3. Beliefs / Attitudes
4. Values (Innermost - hidden)

Our external behaviors are the result of the three underlying attributes. For self-directed organizations to have the behaviors they require to succeed, the proper feelings, beliefs, and values must be in place. We can infer values from behavior.

Training and consequences influence beliefs and shape behaviors, but they rarely alter basic values. Beliefs are logical connections shaped by education and experience. Training or other experiences can demonstrate new, more workable connections and thus change beliefs. "I'll believe it when I see it" is a workable formula for learning. Leaders who are skeptical about self-directed work teams can visit a successful self-directed organization and change their beliefs of what is possible as a result. Persuading people to change values is much more difficult.

When individuals find themselves behaving in ways contrary to their values they experience considerable emotional tension. Their behavior is a sham. Under such circumstances, these persons will:

a. Give the behavior lip service and minimal use. (Compliance)
b. Abandon the behavior altogether and resist the environment. (Resistance)
c. Try to change the environment to eliminate the pressure for the behavior. (Opposition)
d. Leave the environment. (Avoidance)

In a few cases, they may readjust their values to be consistent with the demands in the environment. Forced to engage in the behavior, it may reshape individuals' values -- but don't count on it! In any event, they will eventually try to eliminate the internal tension they feel.

Values have an important impact upon the vision for the organization. Leader's with strong and appropriate values instill them in their organizations. Whenever the propriety of a decision is in question, referring to values is the how we determine whether it is ethical for us as individuals.
There is no other more basic requirement for effective leadership than a productive set of core values.
Values lie behind the question of how organizations exercise control. Organizations whose leaders value personal power and prestige will place control high up in the hierarchy. Control of decisions is power. Organizations whose leaders value personal growth and a sense of achievement for everyone will embrace self-direction.

Douglas McGregor set the stage for examining the values that underlie leader behavior. He described two sets of assumptions about human behavior that he labelled "Theory X" and "Theory Y." McGregor's words in 1960 still contain some of the most fundamental truths for the establishment of self-directed work systems. Here's McGregor's list from his book, The Human Side of Enterprise (McGraw Hill, 1960).

Theory X Assumptions*

  • The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.
  • Because of this human characteristic of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.
  • The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all.

Theory Y Assumptions

  • The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
  • External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives. Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement.
    The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.
The impact of these two different sets of assumptions on how organizations are built is unmistakable. However, some people still believe and act on Theory X assumptions. Why?

There are people who behave in the ways Theory X describes. Fortunately they are not the majority. Organizations have also created conditions that promote Theory X behaviors -- a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treat people as though they are untrustworthy and lazy and they will tend to act that way. Change the assumptions and create conditions for excellence and the Theory Y in people will emerge. When that happens, the hard core Theory X believers and actors will need to find another place to work.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The STAR Concept of Team Leadership

Imagine a five pointed star. Each point on the star represents a particular function the team needs to perform.  For example:

  • Managing
  • Operations
  • Planning
  • Human Resources
  • Site

The STAR concept makes different team members responsible for a single function or STAR point in addition to their normal team duties. This is different from having all the functions performed by a single leader. In the STAR approach, leadership is diffused across the team members. This has the advantage of not overburdening one person with leadership. It also draws upon the best abilities of different members to support the team. It does require a broad level of competence across the team to have enough members capable of handling the points. Members can volunteer and be elected by the team to fill a STAR point. They typically serve in a STAR point position for a set period of time (6 mos. - 1 yr.) and then the role opens to other members. A member can be reappointed to the same STAR point for another term.

Here are some details of what a member in a factory might do in each of the five responsibility areas listed above.


  • Overall direction.
  • Gather data from outside the team and act as an information resource.
  • Link & coordinate with other depts.
  • Set performance challenges.


  • Coordinate activities with other teams.
  • Monitor performance.
  • Plan, schedule overtime.
  • Assign work within the team.
  • Solve production problems.
  • Improve work processes.
  • Communicate with outside resources.
  • Plan and schedule materials flow.
  • Quality testing.
  • Process checking and SPC analysis.
  • Computer networking.


  • Prepare budget input.
  • Compare expenditures to budget and determine cause of variances.
  • Report variances, causes, and corrective actions.
  • Establish team objectives.

Human Resources

  • Establish training needs.
  • Plan and schedule training.
  • Conduct new member orientation.
  • Explain decisions to team members.
  • Manage assignments to broaden team members' skill mix and flexibility.
  • Structure work and document skill requirements.
  • Do staffing planning.
  • Screen and interview candidates.
  • Deal with performance issues.
  • Manage time cards and attendance.
  • Schedule vacations and overtime.
  • Assign, borrow, and lend team members.


  • Carry out safety inspections.
  • Train team members in safe practices.
  • Write incident reports.
  • Carry out basic and preventive maintenance.
  • Assist maintenance in equipment repair.
  • Document downtime performance.
  • Manage downtime schedules.
  • Assist with new equipment installation.
  • Improve operations layout.

There is nothing fixed about the categories or the list of duties above. Teams might use "Quality," "Safety," "Improvement," or other categories as their STAR points with their own unique tasks.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Responsibilities of Self-Directed Teams

The self-directed work team has primary responsibility for operating, maintaining, and constantly improving the work process. This includes not only the processing of materials and the delivery of services, but also the exchange of information. This work creates output.

Among the typical responsibilities of the self-directed team are:

1. Processing forms, reports, documents, etc.
2. Operating equipment and quality checking.
3. Maintaining and debugging equipment and systems.
4. Troubleshooting inefficiencies and quality problems by using specialized resource help such as maintenance, engineering, or information services professionals.
5. Improving existing processes, equipment, systems, and products (e.g., lean).
6. Consulting with other functional areas for support and information.
7. Preventing variances through statistical process control (SPC) and other techniques.
8. Dealing with day-to-day internal or external customer needs and problems.
9. Addressing individual performance and behavioral issues within the team.

The specific nature of what a teams does varies with the work itself. Manufacturing teams and customer service teams live in two very different environments and do vastly different tasks. The overall set of responsibilities, however, should resemble those listed above.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Leading Teams


The first level leader role gets special attention in self-directed work systems. It occupies a position of critical importance to the success of the organization. It is often filled by persons whose jobs will see the greatest amount of change and who may have been least prepared for it. First-level leaders can make or break a team, particularly break it. Dominant leader personalities will often suppress team contributions and apathy develops because members have little influence.

First level leadership is handled in a variety of ways.

1. Maintain an exempt* "supervisor" position and simply change the title to a more participative sounding one like "team leader." The person does virtually the same things he/she did before. Some firms stop at this point and accept this guise as self-direction. It is not. Others change the duties of the role. (*Exempt personnel do not receive overtime.)

2. Create a "team coordinator" position within the team itself. In an hourly team, this person would be "non-exempt" -- the individual in the role gets paid overtime.* A single team member becomes the leader and stays in the role permanently. This position carries somewhat less weight than the exempt leader who is outside the team. (*In a professional team, all the members would be exempt from overtime.)

3. Create a team coordinator position within the team and then encourage team members to rotate through it. The length of residency in the position is directly related to how long it takes to train the leader. This is a function of both social skill requirements and the complexity of the technology used by the team. The higher these are, the longer the leader should stay in the position in order to recover the investment in his/her development. A flexible time period can be established, e.g., 1-2 yrs. in a simple system, 4-5 yrs. in a complex one. Other team members will want this opportunity at the earlier point in the range so the pressure to rotate out the existing leader comes then.

4. Split the duties of a team coordinator into approximately five main responsibilities and have separate team members carry out each responsibility. This is referred to as the "STAR" concept. More on it later.